Nocturama is not only a gripping (and tense) drama/thriller but also a fascinating narrative exercise whose strength turns out to be its main weakness


Nocturama (2016)

Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Bertrand Bonel­lo. Star­ring Finnegan Old­field, Vin­cent Rot­tiers, Hamza Meziani, Man­al Issa, Mar­tin Pe­tit-Guy­ot, Jamil Mc­Craven, Rabah Nait Oufel­la, Lau­re Valen­tinel­li, Il­ias le Doré, Robin Gold­bronn, Luis Rego and Her­mine Karagheuz.

When Noc­tura­ma be­gins, the first thing we see is the city of Paris from an aer­i­al view. Then, we start to fol­low a group of teenagers from dif­fer­ent back­grounds who seem to know one an­oth­er and yet meet sev­er­al times along their way with­out speak­ing a word. They look like they are plan­ning some­thing, but the film is not in a hur­ry to fill us in. At 2:07 pm, we see Yacine (Hamza Meziani) take the sub­way at La Fourche. Sab­ri­na (Man­al Issa), Mika (Jamil Mc­Craven) and Samir (Il­ias Le Doré) are sit­ting on the train in si­lence and act­ing as com­plete strangers. Samir gets off and dumps his mo­bile phone, but he has an­oth­er. Mika car­ries a package.

Some­where else in the city, at the ex­act same time, Sarah (Lau­re Valen­tinel­li) uses her phone to take a pic­ture of the time on her watch be­fore leav­ing her place. Sab­ri­na then checks in at the lux­u­ri­ous Hô­tel Regi­na us­ing a re­hearsed line. While An­dré (Mar­tin Pe­tit-Guy­ot) has a meet­ing with a min­is­ter at 14:30, David (Finnegan Old­field) and Yacine head to the busi­ness dis­trict of La Défense to sneak into a build­ing. Every­thing is metic­u­lous­ly timed and all of these char­ac­ters are like en­gines in a ma­chine, mov­ing with a pre­cise rhythm through dozens of streets and sub­way sta­tions to­wards some­thing that could be ex­treme­ly dangerous.

French di­rec­tor Bertrand Bonel­lo (House of Tol­er­ance, Saint Lau­rent) takes a good time to show us the minu­ti­ae of their plan (al­most the en­tire first half of the movie), bring­ing to mind the style of Robert Bres­son and his fo­cus on method and de­tails. But Noc­tura­ma dif­fers in one key point: all this is told in a non-lin­ear way. Jump­ing con­stant­ly in space and time like a scratched vinyl record, the film works as an in­trigu­ing nar­ra­tive ex­er­cise that leads us through the in­tri­ca­cies of a mys­te­ri­ous plan as char­ac­ters con­verge at spe­cif­ic mo­ments and in spe­cif­ic places so that it all works with­out mis­take — some­thing quite sim­i­lar to what Gus Van Sant did in Ele­phant (2003), which clear­ly served as in­spi­ra­tion for what Bonel­lo does here.

When we fi­nal­ly wit­ness the strik­ing sight of four si­mul­ta­ne­ous ter­ror­ist at­tacks, Noc­tura­ma throws us to­geth­er with its char­ac­ters into a shop­ping mall full of clothes and life­less man­nequins — an iron­ic plot ma­neu­ver that made me think of Dawn of the Dead (1978). As ten­sion and an un­set­tling sense of ap­pre­hen­sion start to grow among the se­clud­ed char­ac­ters, the emp­ty streets scream out­side with the sound of sirens as though they be­long in a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic movie. At a cer­tain mo­ment, a woman in the street says “it was bound to hap­pen.” Bonel­lo doesn’t seem to be try­ing to make any po­lit­i­cal state­ment, so it’s hard to grasp what he (and she) means by that, but we kind of get the point.

It looks like Bonel­lo is only in­ter­est­ed in sug­gest­ing pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions for the char­ac­ters’ ac­tions. Ear­ly on, for in­stance, An­dré is not al­lowed to en­ter his bank due to se­cu­ri­ty mea­sures — some­thing you would ex­pect to see in a Black Mir­ror episode. Some of the char­ac­ters come from a low­er-class back­ground (though not all), and there are Mus­lims among them who speak about promis­es of Par­adise (again, not all). But it is Yacine who de­liv­ers my fa­vorite mo­ment in the en­tire film when he lip-syncs to My Way, sung by Shirley Bassey, wear­ing an el­e­gant suit and red lip­stick that could per­haps in­di­cate a des­per­ate urge to break out of the clos­et — and I love the abrupt in­ter­rup­tion when the scene cuts mid-song to show the out­side of the build­ing over­tak­en by the sounds of he­li­copters and po­lice sirens.

Every­thing screams dis­con­tent­ment, and noth­ing il­lus­trates that bet­ter than the fact that the char­ac­ters took over the tow­er of lux­u­ry and can’t even en­joy it. If there is one true pro­tag­o­nist here, ac­tu­al­ly, it is David, and Noc­tura­ma fo­cus­es more on his ap­pre­hen­sion than on the oth­ers’ (he even in­vites a home­less cou­ple into the mall when the wait­ing be­comes un­bear­able). Al­though I can ad­mire what Bonel­lo is try­ing to do, keep­ing the char­ac­ters’ mo­ti­va­tions open to spec­u­la­tion, this strength, un­for­tu­nate­ly, turns out to be the film’s main weak­ness, since it pre­vents us from get­ting close enough to these peo­ple to un­der­stand why they did what they did, de­spite all the time we spend in the mall with them.

Be­sides, the ex­cess of style some­times bor­ders on self-in­dul­gence, and the non-lin­ear­i­ty of the plot be­comes tir­ing af­ter a while. Don’t get me wrong, the edit­ing is su­perb, and we nev­er get lost, even as it cuts back and forth be­tween scenes that take place at the same time. The sound­track is also great, and the long Steadicam shots help in­crease the ten­sion (ex­act­ly like in Ele­phant). But Noc­tura­ma could have been a lot bet­ter in the end if Bonel­lo had just de­cid­ed to ex­plore his char­ac­ters a bit more so that we wouldn’t see them as emp­ty shells.


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